Lower volatility can mean higher risk. Here is how I think we get to this paradoxical result.
With the growth of hedge funds over the past few years, more and more capital has been scavenging for alpha opportunities. When anything moves a little out of line, there is plenty of money ready to pounce on it. That is, there is more liquidity. And this is great for the liquidity demanders – for example a pension fund that has to invest a recent inflow – because they don’t have to move prices very far to elicit the other side of the trade. And that means lower price volatility.
The lower volatility in turn leads to higher leverage. One reason is that many funds base their leverage on value at risk, and they calculate value at risk using historical volatility. So when there is lower volatility they can lever more and still stay within their VaR limits. A second reason is that as more capital flows into the market and as leverage increases, there is more money chasing opportunities. Alpha from the opportunities is thus dampened, so a hedge fund now has to leverage up more in order to try to generate its target returns. And so the cycle goes – more leverage leads to more liquidity and lower volatility and narrower opportunities, which then leads to still higher leverage. This cycle is not much different than the classical credit cycle – which it is a part of this time around – where financial institutions make credit successively easier and easier because of competitive pressure and an environment that has, up to that point, been clear sailing.
This then gets to the higher risk. Because the real risk in the markets is not the day-to-day volatility, it is the risk of a crisis. And as I argue in A Demon of Our Own Design, high leverage is one root cause of crisis.
Bernanke has said the hedge funds “provide a good deal of liquidity in the markets and help the markets work more efficiently.” And that should be good, right? Well, it depends on how they are getting that liquidity. If it is through leverage, there may be a cloud inside that silver lining.
This relationship between liquidity, volatility versus risk is hard to observe, because there is nothing in the day-to-day markets to suggest anything is wrong. In fact, with volatility low, everything looks just great. We don’t know that leverage has increased, because nobody has those numbers. We don’t know how much liquidity will be forthcoming if there is a market stress, nor do we know how many of those who are the liquidity providers in the normal, quiet market times will move to the sidelines, or turn into liquidity demanders themselves. On the surface, the water may be smooth as glass, but we cannot fathom what is happening in the depths.